The Alexandria Planning Commission this week again voted against a height limitation on buildings along George Washington Memorial Parkway at Hunting Towers south of the Beltway. At the same time, the commission approved plans for an eight-story office building, rejected plans for a 14-story condominium project and approved a zoning change that apparently blocks construction of two other high rise condominiums.
All three projects would be on the southern end of Washington Street. That few hundred yards of Washington Street, between the Beltway and Hunting Creek, are the only parts of the parkway within the city that are not covered by restrictions on buiilding heights.
The commission's rejection of the height restriction Tuesday night came despite strong support for a height limit from the commission's own staff, the City Council, the National Park Service and local residents.
The decision now goes to the City Council for review. If the council approves a height limit in the area, it would block construction of the one high rise project approved by the commission Tuesday. The council voted unanimously two weeks ago to impose a 50-foot limit in the area.
More than 75 residents attended the meeting Tuesday, many to support a height limit.
"I have lived at Hunting Terrace for 10 years," said Geraldine Mills. "And there are many residents who have lived here 30 years or more and who do not want to move. We should not ruin what little land we have left on the way to George Washington's birth place."
A nearby resident, Lenore Swearingen, argued for the height limit because if high rises go in here, she said, "instead of 125 cars for 188 units, you'll have 1,074 cars for 616 units, eight times as many as now."
The only opponent of the height limit, was Robert Lawrence, attorney for the Hunting Terrace Corp., who said the property owner had a "vested right" to build high rises there and has been paying taxes based on a high-rise zone rate for "29 years."
Although residents who came to the meeting appeared angry over the height decision, they made a commission decision to rezone the 16.6-acre Hunting Terrace garden apartments, which are west of the parkway, from high-density high rises to moderate density (garden apartments). The change would make the zoning conform to the land's current use and to the city's adopted master plan for growth. It also sets a 45-foot height limit on buildings there, the maximum for any moderate-density zone.
The commission had been scheduled to consider plans to demolish the 188 garden apartments and replace them with two 15-story condominiums. But that plan ran into difficulty with city planners because of a dispute over ownership of some of the land there. The commission decided just before the meeting to defer action on the proposal.
If the idea of high rises at Hunting Creek has a familiar ring, it is because a similar proposal in the 1960s -- to build high rises on the Hunting Creek mud flats adjacent to the present site -- led to a national environmental controversy and several congressional hearings.
At the time, the Interior Deparment was accused of playing politics, first opposing the high rises and then, after numerous meetings with lawyers for the developers, telling the U.S. Corps of Engineers that it had "reconsidered" and decided that filling in the marshes at the mouth of Hunting Creek would not significantly affect the environment or the parkway.
The controversy ended when Walter J. Hickel was named secretary of Interior by President Nixon. Hickel joined environmentalists and two Interior agencies -- the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service -- in opposing the project.
Current plans for the Hunting Towers projects are opposed by both city officials and the Park Service, primarily because they would create a corridor of high rises in a scenic and historic district where residents traditionally have opposed high rise construction.
"The National Park Service is unalterably opposed to any buildings which would exceed 50 feet in height along Washington Street and Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway," Park Service regional director Jack Fish said in a letter read to the planning commission Tuesday night.
Fish cited a 1929 Alexandria-Park Service agreement that would keep building heights low, in keeping with the "dignity, purpose and memorial character" of the parkway.
The city's historic district limits heights to 50 feet, except along Washington and King streets in the heart of the city, where the limit is 77 feet.
Edward Holland, a civil engineer for Town Landing and the office building project, said prior to building, "No one objected when they build Hunting Towers (in 1950) which goes up to 90 or 96 feet, and the city has allowed seven-story buildings up and down Washington Street. . . . They're being hypocritical about this thing."